We can see them on the sonar — bright, elongated blobs that indicate a pod of big fish right below the boat.
Excitement builds as we three paddlefish-snaggers jerk treble hooks through the water some 20 feet deep, hoping to tie into a “sow” female paddlefish that might break the 100-pound mark.
It’s paddlefish season and we know the fish are in this stretch. They’re making their spring spawning run north out of Table Rock Lake and moving up the James River, where they’ll eventually be stopped cold by the Lake Springfield dam.
But on our first early evening sweep up the river channel, our hit-or-miss pulling comes up empty.
Not for long.
“This is about as close to ocean fishing as you’re going to get in Missouri,” says Lance Freeman, owner of Freeman Anglers and one of a handful of fishing guides on the lake who target the mysterious paddlefish. “My biggest was a 94-pound spoonbill (another name for the shark-like paddlefish), and we’ve had some hits that’ll pull you clear across the boat.”
Tulsa paddlefish fisherman, Jacob Scott, joined Freeman and Ozark angler Greg Yen on the boat for some night snagging on the lower James River, above the confluence of Flatt creek and north of Cape Fair. We’re two miles upriver from Point 15, near “Barking Dog Point,” so named because of the yapping critter we hear on shore.
Scott loves paddlefish snagging, either from a boat or casting a bare hook from shore.
“We call ’em redneck marlins,” said Scott, cracking a grin. “It’s not like any other fish you’re gonna catch out here. The first time you hit ’em you think you’re hung up on the bottom. But then the line starts spooling out and you know you’re in for a fight.”
Paddlefish have been around for more than 300 million years, their lineage showing up in fossil records that appear nearly identical to the fish swimming in Table Rock Lake. Like some species of whales or giant basking sharks, paddlefish are eating machines that swim through the water, mouths agape, consuming huge quantities of tiny zooplankton they strain out with special filters near their gills.
Their rubbery gums have no teeth, and their scaleless bodies feel like a cross between a catfish’s slippery-smooth skin and a shark’s tough hide. The skin makes snagging possible — it keeps the treble hook from pulling through, even when a sow pulls like a freight train.
Freeman has fished this area of the lake — or river, depending on your point of view — for several years. He got hooked on catching trout while living in Pennsylvania and parlayed that skill into a trout guiding service on Lake Taneycomo when he moved to the Ozarks. But during the paddlefish season, March 15 through April 30, he’ll take groups of up to six people on his 22-foot center-console boat for a six-hour snagging excursion for $450.
Most of his clients come from out of state, and choose Freeman because he knows where the fish are and how to get them in the boat. On this trip, we’re using long snagging rods and reels filled with either 80-pound test braided teflon-coated line or a smaller pole with 20-pound test line.
The rods have two large treble hooks tied to the line about two feet apart, anchored with a single lead weight at the bottom. Yen and Scott give me a quick lesson in snagging technique, which basically amounts to pulling back sharply on the rod, then letting the lead weight pull the hooks back down deep.
Again and again, about 15 times a minute. For hours on end.
“Ibuprofen will be your friend,” Scott says. I suspect he’s not joking. The snagging muscles in my right arm call for a time-out, so I switch to my left hand and haul back sharply.
The rod suddenly stops in mid-pull, the tip arcing deeply toward the lake. And line screams from the reel.
“Fish on!” Freeman yells.
Within a few minutes I land my first paddlefish, nowhere close to a sow — more like an 8-pound piglet.
“We call ’em pups,” Freeman corrects, as we slip the fish back into the river. And it’s not a school of paddlefish, it’s a pod, probably because they look like whales to bass and bluegill in the lake.
Landing the big ones
Snagging from a boat isn’t the only way to catch them. Yen started out 10 years ago casting treble hooks below Lake Springfield Dam, where the paddlefish pile up in spring. In fact, his best paddlefish so far is a 70-pounder he hooked below the dam’s spillway.
“There are a lot of snags, but if you do it enough you’ll know where the obstructions are,” Yen said. “If it doesn’t jerk back, it’s a snag.”
Two hours into our trip, Yen hooks a much bigger fish than my little pup. It pulls hard but comes up fairly quickly, hooked both near the tail and close to its mouth, in the paddle-like elongated “rostrum.” Freeman measures the fish carefully to make sure it’s longer than the legal minimum of 34 inches. It’s a keeper, one of two you’re allowed in one 24-hour period.
Yen ties a rope to the fish’s tail and its long spoonbill, then carefully hoists the fish over the side, attaching the rope to a cleat on the boat. The fish will remain alive and fresh until our trip is over.
But not before one last hookup.
Like the first strike, this one catches me completely by surprise. It’s a brute force, pulling and pulling, overwhelming the reel’s drag.
On 20-pound test line, I play the fish cautiously or the fight will be a short one. Five minutes in, the paddlefish breaks the surface, its tail and dorsal fin looking eerily like that of a shark. The fish’s silver-gray body and creamy white belly glow in our headlamps.
The fish, sensing the boat nearby, makes a dash for the river bottom, peeling line from the reel in another unstoppable run. No need for a tape measure on this one. Freeman calls for the gaff because it’s too big to try to manhandle aboard.
I work the fish back to the surface, then closer to the boat, where a swift strike with the gaff brings it over the gunwale. It’s a big male, 42 pounds and almost as long as I am tall.
Freeman offers a high-five as we admire the massive fish, which will yield a bounty of tasty white meat. As hard as this one pulled, I can’t imagine hooking into a century-mark sow on the light tackle I used.
Perhaps next snagging season, I’ll get a chance to find out.http://www.news-leader.com/article/20 ... paddlefish-Ozarks-fishing